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On a restoration mission in the Manawatū

‘Utuwai Island’ is an area on Jenna Fisher’s eight acre Manawatū property which is cut off from the main block by the Piripiri Stream. Jenna tells the story of their transformation of the area.

Our project began in 2015. There was a creek at the rear of our new property that weaved its way through peninsulas of land the length of the property, accompanied by steep banks and gorges. The land surrounding the creek was eroding as the stock destroyed its banks.

It was also riddled with all sorts of noxious plants – hawthorn, Japanese honeysuckle, sycamore, wilding conifers, and more. However, a closer look also revealed established mature kamahi, koromiko, kōtukutuku and mānuka: with an abundance of self-seeded tōtara, mānuka, horoeka, mapou, tarata, ribbonwood, houhere and māhoe. 

The peninsulas and creek were just part of each paddock—the stock meandered their way through the creeks dropping faeces and urine wherever they pleased, the cows and sheep munched on any native seedling within their reach, and the only plant survivors were those out on the rocky outcrops. 

As we explored the creek we discovered four longfin eels that have lived on the property for the past 30 years or so and were hand fed fed by the previous owners. We then undertook a number of night-time missions to observe who lived in the creek and discovered a healthy population of koura and a few colonies of glow-worms. We decided this area needed to be fenced off, replanted in natives and protected for future generations to enjoy.

We chose natives as the replanting species because before the Pohangina Valley was settled in the late 1890s, it was covered in native bush. Bushfires were commonplace to clear the land for farming; this is how our land would have originally been cleared. 

Our property consists of four large flat paddocks that are perfect for grazing livestock: but the steep cliffs and the creek needed to be fenced off and returned to native bush. The cliff-adjacent land is a few acres at most and is no good for grazing—we had even lost stock and a beloved family dog into the steep gorges at the southern end.  

To prepare our site, fences were erected the length of the creek on our property with the help of an Environmental Grant from Horizons Regional Council in 2019. This also created a much needed safety barrier from the creek for our two small children who at this point were 2.5 years and 6 months old.

Being a young family on one income meant the native planting was simply a pipe dream: we just didn’t have thousands of dollars to spend on trees. I researched and taught myself as much as I could about native trees, plants, and grasses: I learnt to recognise plants in the bush.  

Luckily for me, we are directly across the road from a DOC bush block, and beyond that is the Ruahine Forest Park. I set out to collect seeds from trees that I wanted to grow, and taught myself through trial and error how to germinate the seeds and slowly grow my own forest.  

In late 2019 I got the great news that my application for a tree grant from Trees That Count was granted. I initially only applied for 100 trees as I wasn’t entirely sure how many trees I would need. However, once I got the first 100 trees planted in June 2020, it was apparent that this was going to be a 3-4 year project, with many more thousands of trees to be sourced. I needed to keep in mind that at this stage our children were only one and three years old, and would remain permanent fixtures at my side until they start school. As the children and myself are planting the majority of the trees on our own, only so much planting can be achieved each winter.

In 2020 I applied for a further grant from Trees That Count and am awaiting the arrival of 200 more trees in May. I will keep progressing and applying for grants each year, until hopefully by 2023 I will have the majority of the area planted and will be able to grow the remaining trees myself from seed I’ve saved from local bush.

This year I also have Horizons Regional Council on board with a riparian planting grant and supplying us with 300 natives, mostly grasses, smaller shrubs and flaxes to plant closer to the edges of the creek and two ponds. It’s going to be a busy winter, but I will call in a few people to give me a hand! 

Right now I’m in planting preparation mode—removing the last of the pest plants, brush cutting the grass down, marking out where each tree will be planted—and closer to the plants arriving I will pre-dig each hole. 

I also make my own mulch mats to cover the ground where each tree is planted. I source coffee bean sacks from a coffee roaster in Palmerston North and manage to turn each sack into four mulch mats that keep the grass and weeds at bay, giving the trees a much better chance of survival. By the time the trees are established and the grass has subsided the mats will decompose naturally into the soil.

My overall aim for this area is to use it as an educational resource for our children, and any other children that may wish to come along and learn. The children are my motivation to keep going with this project. I love watching them learn, and am proud that my now four-year-old can recognise most native trees, something that I myself have only learned in recent years! 

We have reserved a part of the planting area to be a permanent campsite and with time I will add a firepit, a camp kitchen and ensure an area for a tent is left bare. I want this area to be where we teach our children survival and bush skills before they venture further into the local Ruahine Forest Park. We will teach the children how to light a campfire, pitch a tent and how to cook on a fire.

I am incredibly passionate about the environment and pest control. We are already trapping for rats, possums, stoats and hedgehogs in this area, and enjoy heading out most days to check and clear traps. I’m also learning about traditional Māori uses for native plants. I look forward to trying out some of these historical foods and remedies and passing on my knowledge to future generations.